June 13, 2019


Sibelius: Symphony No. 1. Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $12.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. SWR Music. $8.99.

     Some modern CDs are throwbacks to an earlier time – the days of vinyl records that could generally hold just one symphony on a disc, and nothing else. The compensation for CDs containing much less music than the medium is capable of (today, a CD can hold about 80 minutes of material) is that at least some of these releases are offered at prices significantly below those of $16.99 and up per disc, which have become standard. A few companies offer all or substantially all their releases at low-for-the-21st-century prices of $12.99 or less – Naxos and Brilliant Classics come to mind – but other firms match or even undercut that price with recordings that can be very worthwhile indeed, at least for listeners looking for well-interpreted versions of music as perhaps a second or third addition of pieces to their collections. For example, although serious classical-music listeners almost certainly have at least one complete set of the Sibelius symphonies already, some may want to own a well-priced new ATMA Classique release featuring Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal under Yannick Nézet-Séguin as a supplementary version of Symphony No. 1. This is a middle-of-the-road interpretation, without major excesses or any significant chance-taking in the reading. The opening clarinet solo, for example, meanders a bit before introducing a main theme that flows nicely but shows less of the lushness of strings that works particularly well in this most Romantic of Sibelius’ symphonies. The orchestra’s brass, strong and strident, does more to set the tone of the performance than do the strings, and the rocking motion of the woodwinds creates a pleasantly pastoral impression. This first movement is something of a stop-and-go affair, without as much forward momentum as in other readings, but Nézet-Séguin elicits some attractive details periodically, notably from pizzicato strings and harp. The gentle second movement is more effective, a trifle sadder than usual because Nézet-Séguin uses the tempo marking Andante ma non troppo lento to keep matters a touch more lento than other conductors do. The third movement has good bounce and particularly fine playing by the winds, but is marred by an unexplainable and inappropriate speedup at the end. This does, however, make the broadly conceived opening of the fourth movement a stronger contrast. Nézet-Séguin seems more comfortable with the mood and speed changes of this movement than he is earlier in the symphony, with the result that the finale is the most-effective part of the reading. As a whole, this is a respectable if not particularly idiomatic performance – unlikely to be any listener’s first choice for the music, but a worthy additional CD for some collections. It is worth noting that one thing listeners give up here, and in quite a few other lower-priced CDs as well, is a useful booklet. The one included with this disc offers only two short paragraphs – a total of 11 lines – about the music. It then gives two full pages to information on Nézet-Séguin, one page to the orchestra as a whole, and four pages to a listing of every musician in the ensemble. The focus on performers rather than on what is performed is not confined to lower-price CDs but seems more common there than in costlier recordings, and is very unfortunate, unnecessarily and inexplicably diminishing the importance of the music.

     The very-little-information approach is at its height (or depth) in SWR Music releases such as that of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, performed by the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. These CDs, offered in trifold cardboard packages at a truly exceptional 21st-century price of $8.99, represent compromises on a variety of levels. The inexpensive packaging and very brief notes on the music – and even briefer ones on conductor and orchestra, which at least means the ratio makes sense – are only part of the cost-cutting. The performances themselves are releases or re-releases from some time ago: this one, a live recording, dates to 2006 (the Sibelius with Nézet-Séguin is a 2018 performance). On the other hand, Mahler’s Fifth is a considerably longer work than Sibelius’ First and would not have fit on a single vinyl record in the past, so this release and others on this label qualify as genuine bargains – as long as the performances are worthy. In the case of Norrington’s handling of Mahler’s Fifth, the reading is certainly worthwhile. The Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, which subsequently merged with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, was always a first-rate ensemble and almost ideally suited for Mahler, who – as one of the great conductors of his time – knew exactly what different sections of the orchestra could do and what he expected of them. Norrington opens this Mahler Fifth a tad more quickly than is usually heard, but once the movement settles into its somber, funereal pace wie ein Kondukt, he paces it admirably, with fine attention to little details, notably in the percussion. There is no section of this orchestra that is less than excellent, with the bite of the brass especially impressive – and brought to the fore by Norrington. The second movement here is appropriately stormy and dark, and in the contrasting material one-third of the way through, Norrington offers substantial respite. But of course that does not last, and the intensity of the later part of the movement comes through quite strongly here, with the brass chorale, which is to reappear at the symphony’s conclusion, played especially impressively. The central third movement flows beautifully here, dancing along at just the right pace, with the brass being exceptional, the horn solos making those instruments first among equals. The timpani are also particularly impressive here. The gorgeous fourth movement, however, gets somewhat short shrift: Mahler wanted it played Sehr langsam (“very slowly”), but Norrington makes it more of an Andante (albeit a rather slow walk) than the Adagietto it is supposed to be. Because this movement uses only strings and harp, it showcases the orchestra in ways that the prior ones do not, and again the ensemble proves first-rate. But the movement lacks emotional depth: it is pleasant-sounding and beautifully played, but without the warmth and heartfelt feeling that it can possess. The return of the brass to open the finale restores the excellence of the reading, and here Norrington really pays attention to the tempo marking Allegro giocoso – as few conductors do. This is a monumental symphony, true, but Mahler wanted it to conclude “playfully,” a word very rarely associated with this composer and his music. Actually, Norrington plays with the music a bit too much – there is considerably more rubato in this movement than there should be – but to the extent that he lets the recurring rondo elements lighten and brighten the overall atmosphere, he manages to balance the serious and playful to fine effect. What Mahler called Part Three of the symphony (the fourth and fifth movements) is not at the same level in this performance as Part One (first and second movements) or Part Two (third movement). But the finale’s climactic re-entry of the brass chorale here becomes a true capstone of the symphony, and despite some shortcomings, this is a more-than-creditable performance, exceptionally well played although, in the final movements, somewhat over-interpreted. And the CD’s price makes it an exceptional value. Mahler’s Fifth (1901-02) is of the same time period, the cusp of the 20th century, as Sibelius’ First (1898-99); but the works occupy very different musical worlds – as the music of these two great composers would continue to do (leading to their famous disagreement about what a symphony should do and should be). The chance to own well-performed and well-priced versions of both these important works is one that belongs firmly and fortunately to the 21st century.

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